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Puffin Preserving culture, one artist at a time

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Some of the many sculptures welcoming visitors. Jerry Szubin
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Perry Rosenstein displays a photo of Arab and Israeli students spending time together at Camp Shomria. Jerry Szubin

Twenty-five years ago, puffins on the coastal islands off Maine were nearly extinct,” says Gladys Miller-Rosenstein, executive director of The Puffin Foundation, headquartered in Teaneck. “Scientists were working to bring them back through the use of decoys and other means.”

Fortunately, she added, the bird was returned to its native habitats through the efforts of a concerned citizenry. The 25-year-old Puffin Foundation — started by her husband, Perry Rosenstein — hopes to pull off a similar feat. But rather than target an endangered species, it seeks to preserve and grow the cultural life of the community.

“If there’s no art, there’s no life,” said Rosenstein. “People who live here today would find a tremendous void in their life without the Puffin. Art is important because it is the spirit of humanity; the voice of what you want to get across to people. It’s a humanistic message, not a political one.”

Rosenstein said that the idea for the foundation originated after the death of his first wife, when his family was looking for an appropriate way to honor her memory.

“She had taken an interest in the bird,” he said. “The family thought it would be an appropriate memorial not just to work to preserve the species, but to better society as well.”

Preservation, it would seem, is a major interest of his. He is helping to restore the Jewish graveyard in Zuromin, Poland, where “the locals were using the stones” from desecrated burial plots. He has sent out more than 100 CDs of a ceremony held there to spark interest among the relatives of those buried in that cemetery.

With their eye on preserving the arts as well, the Rosensteins are now seeking to “open the doors of artistic expression by providing grants to artists and art organizations that are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy.” The foundation awards more than 300 grants each year to artists in a wide range of media, from music to theater to the printed word.

On the day we spoke, Miller-Rosenstein, executive director since 1994, was in the midst of reviewing 1,000 grant applications. Last year, the foundation awarded about 390 grants.

“Generally, one-third of applicants receive what we call seed money, so they can then approach a larger funder,” she said.

“We want to help people get their ideas across,” said Miller-Rosenstein, noting that Puffin, together with The Nation Institute, presents a $100,000 award each year to reward “creative citizenship.” This year’s award went to author and social activist Jim Hightower, cited for “nurturing organic production, promoting alternative crops, regulating pesticides, and monitoring groundwater.” In keeping with the Rosensteins’ populist views, Hightower is also praised as “an advocate for everyday people whose voices are seldom heard in Washington or on Wall Street.”

The Puffin Foundation — the parent organization for many other projects — is very much a family affair, said Rosenstein. His daughter, Judith Kitrick, has a Puffin facility in Columbus, Ohio, while his son, Carl, owns the Puffin Room, an exhibition space in Soho, N.Y. His other son, Neal, works with him at the Teaneck location.

Family has been formative in other ways as well. Both Gladys and Perry Rosenstein said they had “learned well” from their own socially involved parents.

“We were both influenced by our parents,” said Perry Rosenstein. “Some people come out of the womb with a sign saying ‘I protest.’ Both sets of parents fought for the rights of people,” he noted, adding that they were actively involved in the labor movement.

The Rosensteins recently bought a gallery at the Museum of the City of New York that will be devoted to social activism, exploring events such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and civil rights marches.

While the couple have lived in Teaneck for some 12 years, Perry Rosenstein has a longtime relationship with the Puffin’s current facility, which served as the headquarters for his industrial fasteners business for some 40 years. Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, he has funded the Puffin through a family trust. Miller-Rosenstein, also from Manhattan, was an elementary school teacher and administrator before becoming the full-time operations director of the foundation.

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One of the Rosensteins’ proudest achievements has been preserving the Teaneck Creek watershed, which now includes miles of walking trails. At right, some of the many sculptures welcoming visitors to the restored area.

One of the Puffin’s proudest projects, restoration of the Teaneck Creek watershed, is funded by Rosenstein as well.

“When I saw surveyors at the site of what is now the Teaneck Creek Conservancy, I decided that it should not be sold to realtors but should be preserved as an open space,” he said. “I met with community leaders and politicians to find out what they would like to see there.”

The Conservancy, founded in 2001, is a joint effort by the foundation — together with environmentalists, artists, and educators — to reclaim and protect the environmental, cultural, and historical legacy of the watershed, a small parcel of land in the southernmost portion of Teaneck.

According to the group’s Website, “Once a staging ground for the construction of the intersection of Routes 80 and 95, the land had been an unofficial dumpsite for nearly half a century. Refrigerators and old tires lay half-buried under mountains of broken concrete and asphalt.” In 2006, after “hundreds of hours of community meetings and thousands of hours of sweat equity,” the Teaneck Creek Park was unveiled, including miles of walking trails, an outdoor classroom, and ecological art exhibits. The entrance to the park boasts a sculpture garden with pieces that change on a regular basis.

The executive director explained that while Puffin often hosts programs of great interest to the Jewish community, such as “always well-attended” evenings of klezmer music, its goal is not to target any one group.

“We want to bring the community together,” she said. “What we try to do is bring in programs representing all the people and diversity of the community, whether Jewish, African American, or Palestinian.

She noted that Puffin hosts an annual program involving youngsters from Camp Shomria, which brings Israeli and Arab children together for several weeks. The students who attend participate in a Puffin exhibition showcasing photos they have taken of each other’s homes in Israel.

“It’s about conflict resolution,” said Rosenstein, holding up a photo showing the children spending time together. “The students speak to the audience about their experiences living together and learning more about each other.”

Rosenstein also stressed the importance of unifying the local community.

“Our job is to integrate [the diverse groups] in the community and not allow them to separate,” he said, noting that if they have been successful with some groups, they are frustrated that the observant Jewish community “has not been receptive.”

In this regard Miller-Rosenstein said Puffin had sponsored a writing workshop, inviting Israelis and Arabs to write about personal emotional experiences. About 25 people participated, she said, with the group fairly evenly split between the two communities.

The writing process was amicable, she said. But when the writings were later read at a public program, “many people got up and left when the Arab community read their presentations. They couldn’t accept the emotionality of the other side. People poured their hearts out — it was hard to hear each other.”

The foundation also displayed a canvas produced by the One by One art program, which brings together Jews whose families were touched by the Holocaust, and individuals who learned at some point in their lives that their parents had been Nazis.

“We invited members of the organization to talk about it here,” said Miller-Rosenstein. “It wasn’t about forgiveness but about moving forward.”

The Rosensteins are proud of their work with the Teaneck Community Education Department, which presented the couple with a certificate of appreciation for their support.

“Community involvement is key,” said Rosenstein, noting that Puffin helps fund an after-school program called Super Strides, offering experimental programs for local children. For those who cannot afford to participate, the center provides scholarships.

The Rosensteins have also worked on several projects with the Museum of the City of New York.

One, said Miller-Rosenstein, “is a film about radicals in the Bronx, where Perry grew up, looking at the first cooperative housing there.”

The other is a film on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which brought Americans to Spain to fight against Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

“It’s amazing that young Americans were willing to go to save democracy for the world,” said Rosenstein. “We felt overwhelmed that they would have done this. The story was buried in history books but is now being taught in some school systems.” He pointed out that Puffin has been giving grants to workshops for teachers who want to teach this material. In addition, the foundation is preparing to give a human rights award.

While the Rosensteins do not avoid controversial subject matter, “we try not to be political but rather keep ourselves open to diverse discussions on all sides of an issue, to bring all points of view to the front,” said Miller-Rosenstein.

Still — whether through art, music, theater, or lectures — the couple are firm in their commitment “to bring things of interest to the local community without their having to go to New York City.”

“We’ve got all the ingredients to put Teaneck on the map,” said Rosenstein.

 
 

UTJ’s Teaneck building to go back on auction block

The Teaneck headquarters of the Union for Traditional Judaism and Institute of Traditional Judaism, which both declared bankruptcy earlier this year, is heading back to auction on Nov. 1.

Real estate development company 333 Realty won a previous auction this summer with a bid of $1.45 million for the property at 811 Palisade Ave. The buyer, however, decided not to move forward at that price, according to Janice Grubin, the bankruptcy attorney assigned to UTJ. A new price of $1.2 million was negotiated, but that has to receive court approval, and in order for that to happen, a new auction must take place.

“We have a responsibility to test the market,” Grubin told The Jewish Standard. “We have to make sure this is the highest and best price, and the only way to do that is to test the market.”

In the meantime, UTJ has submitted a controversial request to U.S. Bankruptcy Court seeking approval to remove a tree on the property, if the new auction winner decides it does not want the tree. That hearing is scheduled for Oct. 18, but regardless of the decision, no action would be taken on the tree without the request of the new auction winner.

“The real estate market is very difficult these days, and the presence of the tree and the congregation that is still on the premises together with the difficulty of the real estate market were among the factors leading to this,” Grubin said.

The congregation refers to Netivot Shalom, a modern Orthodox synagogue of about 80 families that has met in the UTJ building for 10 years.

With the building heading back to auction, Netivot Shalom’s leaders are hopeful that the synagogue can make a successful bid. The congregation’s board sent out letters to its membership last month to help raise at least $400,000, which would allow the synagogue to cover a down payment on a bid.

“Our choice would be to remain in the building,” said Pamela Scheininger, the synagogue’s president. “We’re optimistic that this presents us with an opportunity to do that in a very serious way.”

Netivot Shalom filled out paperwork for the August auction but did not make a bid.

UTJ declared bankruptcy in May and its leaders decided to sell its headquarters to cover its debts. Controversy erupted in July when the organization began work to remove a large oak tree that towers over the property. Union leaders argued that safety concerns prompted them to seek the tree’s removal, while the tree’s supporters argued that the removal was a ploy to get more money for the property. The tree, estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old, is considered the oldest in Teaneck.

Spurred by protests and petitions by eco-activists, the Teaneck Township council took up the issue at its July meeting and considered making a bid on the property to save the tree. The council ultimately decided not to intervene, but UTJ left the tree up through the auction.

The Puffin Foundation last month stepped into the picture with an offer of up to $200,000 to the successful bidder to maintain the tree.

Perry Rosenstein, the foundation’s president, said he is waiting for a document guaranteeing that the tree will be preserved.

The question remains one of liability, said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president.

“People have expressed their feelings for the tree, and I certainly understand and share appreciation for its beauty, but the risk that comes along with it is significant,” he said.

 
 

UTJ tree makes the big time, but still may be uprooted

Tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree on the corner on the Teaneck property of the Union for Traditional Judaism. According to the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, the tree is big. Really big. The fourth biggest red oak in New Jersey, actually.

Parks and Forestry added the tree to its “Big Tree” list last week after Sen. Loretta Weinberg approached the department about a month ago. The red oak is New Jersey’s state tree, but the Big Tree listing does not offer any special protection for the UTJ tree, which has been at the center of a months-long debate between the community and the bankrupt UTJ, which is trying to sell the property.

“It doesn’t convey upon the tree any particular legal aspect, but it does enhance what should be our community’s respect,” Weinberg told The Jewish Standard. “Whoever purchases the land is going to realize this is a very big community issue and will (hopefully) have respect for the community in which they’re planning to move.”

Tree facts

Circumference: 18.5 feet

Height: 80 feet

Estimated age: At least 250 years

UTJ and its sister organization, the Institute of Traditional Judaism, declared bankruptcy in May and the organization’s leaders decided to sell its headquarters to cover its debts. Controversy erupted in July when the union began work to remove a large oak tree that towers over the property. Union leaders argued that safety concerns prompted them to seek the tree’s removal, while the tree’s supporters argued that the removal was a ploy to get more money for the property.

The union decided not to remove the tree at that time and proceeded with an August auction. Real estate development company 333 Realty won that auction with a bid of $1.45 million. The buyer, however, decided not to move forward at that price, according to UTJ’s bankruptcy attorney. In order to receive court approval of a negotiated lower price of $1.2 million, a new auction must first take place. That auction is scheduled for Nov. 1.

The Puffin Foundation last month stepped into the picture with an offer to the successful bidder of up to $200,000 to pay for an easement to maintain the tree.

“I’m optimistic but we have to wait and see who is going to be the winning bidder in the next go-around, and what that bidder plans to do with the land,” Weinberg said.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court granted a motion earlier this week that allows UTJ to remove the tree if the winning bidder requested it. UTJ’s leader emphasized that there are no immediate plans to uproot the oak.

“We have no intention of touching the tree until after the auction, should it be necessary at that point,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president.

Until a closing date is set, UTJ and its sister organization, the ITJ, are unable to move forward with preparations for a new headquarters. The organizations are concentrating in the meantime on distance-learning programs, Price said. “We are spending most of our time now focusing on … getting our real work of outreach done,” Price said. “The tree issue is a secondary issue to us now.”

 
 

Teaneck tree, shul staying put

Rededication set for venerable oak

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This plaque will be planted near the giant red oak to commemorate those who fought to keep it rooted in Teaneck. Courtesy The Puffin Foundation

The tremendous tree whose uncertain fate stirred the passions of Teaneck’s green activists last year has a new lease on life, as does the synagogue that now hosts it.

Rooted at 811 Palisade Ave., the former site of the Union for Traditional Judaism and the Institute of Traditional Judaism, the tree was at the center of a town-wide debate on whether it could safely stand over Teaneck’s main drag, Cedar Lane. Netivot Shalom, the modern Orthodox synagogue that won last fall’s bankruptcy auction of the property, decided to keep it rooted to the property.

Thanks to a conservation easement made possible by a donation from the Puffin Foundation, the tree has come under the protection of the Bergen County Department of Parks. Puffin’s president, Perry Rosenstein, and Teaneck green activist Wally Cowan negotiated the easement with the parks department, while Martin Sarver, Puffin’s attorney, negotiated with the shul. Netivot Shalom and the Puffin Foundation will hold a rededication ceremony on Friday, May 6, to celebrate the tree’s salvation.

“We’re very happy to partner with the Puffin Foundation and Bergen County and we’re happy to do our part in the preservation of the tree,” Netivot Shalom’s president, Pamela Scheininger, told The Jewish Standard last week.

The tree is estimated to be between 250 and 350 years old and stands about 80 feet tall while measuring almost 19 feet around. Last year it was named to the state’s Big Tree list and declared the fourth largest red oak in New Jersey. While the fate of the property hung in limbo in bankruptcy court, Perry and Gladys Rosenstein of the Puffin Foundation stepped forward in October with an offer of up to $200,000 to the then-undetermined new owners to pay for a conservation easement to protect the tree.

“What we’re trying to do is draw the attention of Teaneck and the community at large [to the fact] that we’re so busy saving so many things, it’s time we saved things in our own country,” Perry Rosenstein told the Standard last week. “We saved the polar bears, we saved the reptiles, it’s time we saved something that’s part of our history. That’s what motivated us to save this tree.”

The tree dates back to at least the Revolutionary War, but after UTJ declared bankruptcy last spring its leaders decided to remove it, arguing that its aging limbs posed a danger to passersby. Critics, however, argued that the reason for its planned removal was to increase the property’s value.

When UTJ was preparing to remove the tree last summer, Cowan spearheaded protests that eventually led to UTJ’s decision to leave the tree’s fate to the next property owner. Netivot Shalom bought the building during a bankruptcy auction in the fall. Rosenstein praised Cowan and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg for leading the fight for the tree’s preservation.

The tree holds special memories for the senator, whose late husband Irwin led efforts to save it some three decades ago when a bank sought to tear it down to make way for a parking lot. Now when Weinberg and her children pass by, they affectionately refer to it as “Dad’s Tree.” Irwin Weinberg will be commemorated on a plaque that will be unveiled during the dedication.

“I am forever indebted to Wally Cowan, who took up the fight that my husband left off a number of years ago, and certainly to Gladys and Perry Rosenstein for finding the resources,” Weinberg said. “Everyone who drives up and down Cedar Lane will be able to look at that tree with a little bit of respect both for its age and its magnificence.”

While the tree’s fate hung in limbo, so, too, did that of Netivot Shalom, which was faced with the possibility of dispossession. Netivot Shalom had rented space in UTJ’s building for several years but complications and lawsuits arose last year after a lease dispute.

 
 
 
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